Thoughts On Surviving The Holidays With Our Families… 

Holidays can present quite a challenge for many of us as we engage our families. Whether you experience your family as difficult to be around or downright dysfunctional, 20 years of talking to clients about their experiences has taught me that taking time to develop a survival plan can help one make the best of the holidays and minimize painful conflict.

 

Some people have made an authentic choice not to be in their families’ life because they find it abusive or unhealthy. However, if you remain an active member of your family, at least around the holidays, then it is important to acknowledge that YOU have made that choice. Therefore, you should not pretend to yourself that you are unaware of the fact that various family dramas exist. For example, you know in advance that 2 of your siblings have been in conflict for years; that you have a racist uncle or a homophobic aunt; that there is a political divide between democrats and republicans, or that any number of relatives may disapprove of others for any number of reasons. You can go into the holidays with your family and get caught up in the emotions of the moment and add to the drama, or you can make a plan to keep your sanity.

 

In formulating your survival plan, I recommend taking an anthropological perspective to help you gain some emotional distance. Try thinking of yourself as a Martian, attempting to understand earth culture. How does each member of your family relate to the others? How do you relate to each member of your family? What are the disagreements you should avoid and what commonalities exist that you can use to connect in a more meaningful way? With this perspective in mind, I would like to offer some useful survival tips.

 1) Time Outs

Even the people we most love and admire can sometimes get under our skin. So, whether a family member is driving you completely crazy, or merely just rubbing you the wrong way, time outs can help you take a break. The classic notion of a time out may mean going for a walk or a spending five minutes in the backyard to clear your head, thus interrupting your immediate emotional response. Other variations could include taking time to play with your nieces and nephews, having some one-on-one time with a cherished grandparent or sibling, or engaging in an enjoyable family tradition of playing cards or having a game of pool. Who says you have to constantly be around family members who annoy you? For those who are traveling to see families and are spending 3-4 days with them, make sure you get away from each other. Go to a movie or out to eat with friends who may still live in the area. Some people chose to stay at a hotel just so they do not have to eat and breath their families for 3-4 straight days. Lastly, you can line up a support person that you can call to remind you that you have a life beyond your family! This support person may be your best friend, an AA sponsor or your psychotherapist. I have often made myself available for phone sessions when clients are visiting their families out of town.  

2) Remember: You are not your family; you are a separate person.

Some of us experience feelings of shame about our families. We can sometimes fall back into old family “roles” that developed as we were growing up. The field of addictions treatment developed a matrix of family roles into which children from dysfunctional families often get forced. These roles include: 1) Family heroes that can do no wrong, but feel forced to hide their secret inadequacies or struggles in life; 2) Scapegoats that negatively act out their inner feelings of hurt and guilt by being so invalidated by their families; 3) Lost children that withdraw into invisibility rather than risk being targeted by dysfunctional parents, but end up with deep feelings of loneliness and a sense of being unimportant; and 4) Mascots who mask their fear of the problems occurring in their families by providing ‘comic relief.”

 

By increasing our awareness about our old family roles, we can choose new ways of being in the world. Thus, one part of a good survival plan could be to make a list of all your good qualities, achievements and triumphs in life BEFORE being around your family so you can mentally remind yourself that you have moved beyond these destructive roles. You are not what your family may think you are!

3) Avoid Alcohol 

Many families may enjoy wine, beer and alcohol as a part of the holiday festivities. On one hand, alcohol can reduce anxiety and inhibitions, thereby increasing a general sense of wellbeing. On the other hand, nothing can help escalate family drama better than alcohol! Choosing to Avoid or limit the use of alcohol may be an important judgment call as you prepare your survival plan. 

4) Avoid Politics & Religion

The American political landscape has become increasingly polarized and at times, down right uncivil. As we enter an election year, arguing about politics or other potentially controversial topics is a sure fire way to derail your holidays. These days people do not engage in political debate to solve important national problems or to arrive at consensus, they argue to win. There is no rule that says you have to engage family members with whom you disagree, especially if you know you inhabit entrenched positions. In the end, you each have only one vote in a nation of millions. Even if you were to persuade your entire family to your point of view, it still will make no real difference in the national scheme of things. Therefore I would urge you to try and keep perspective and behave yourself!

5) Grief Issues

Holidays can be further complicated by the death of a family member. The first Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Ramadan since their death is a kind of anniversary of sorts. Left unrecognized it could create conflict and isolation between family members, with each member grieving the loss in their own personal way. However, holiday gatherings can provide an important way for the whole family to work through their grief. Include the deceased in your conversations and celebrations. Hang a stocking for your loved one in which people can put notes with their thoughts or feelings. Look at photographs. Once others realize that you are comfortable talking about your loved one, they can relate stories that will add to your pleasant memories.

6) Blood family vs. Chosen family

Many people have a network of friends who are kindred spirits. Often times these friends feel more like family than our actual blood relatives. Spending time with both kinds of families can be a very important way of not only surviving the holidays, but also truly celebrating them. Spending time with those kindred to us is especially important for those who are alone without family during the holidays. 

7) Keep Your Sense of Humor

And finally, having a healthy sense of humor not only helps us maintain a good perspective on those family members we find difficult to be around, it makes us easier to be around as well! One way I prepare for the holidays is by watching the movie “Home for the Holidays.” Directed by Jodie Foster and staring Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, and Charles Durning, it’s depiction of a dysfunctional family that only gathers during the holidays is an often hilarious, and at turns touching human drama. It can serve as a reminder that all families have their dramas; that family members grow up and create their own lives and then find it difficult to easily blend back with each other once a year.